IT has been a difficult year for Scottish rugby, pockmarked by disappointments on the field and a further decline in the credibility of Murrayfield executives off it. While performance levels will hopefully improve in the coming months, rebuilding respect for those who run the game will take a bit longer. For the good of the game, they must act now and do something constructive.
Stakeholder is a broad-brush term that covers a diverse group of people, including kids, parents, players, coaches, club officials, volunteers, medical specialists, groundsmen, club stalwarts, casual supporters and the communities in which clubs are immersed. The game can’t afford to lose any of them.
The patience of many, particularly the unheralded volunteers who are the spine of grassroots rugby, is admirable but surely wearing thin at the apparent lack of support from those who reside at Murrayfield. The aloof and dismissive behaviour of executives reeks of a lack of empathy for committed individuals performing all manner of thankless tasks. A difficult situation is made worse by the fact that the money clubs need to create structures to attract fresh blood and halt dwindling player numbers is being directed towards performance rugby.
The impression of executives being out of touch also exists further up the pyramid. Has Mark Dodson yet seen a match in the Super6 competition that was railroaded into existence at the expense of the club game he so widely denigrated yet never watched? He is paid handsomely because he is a CEO of a big business. Others in that role spend time visiting their outlets, whether factories, shops, restaurants or bars, in order to remain abreast of what’s happening at ground level. His absence simply fuels the criticism. He could easily fix that – come on Mark, it would be good to see you at a game, perhaps presenting the man-of-the-match award.
Of course, the main issue is money. There is no bottomless pit of cash. The revenue is poured over the top of the pyramid and trickles down, becoming increasingly scarce at each stage. A few dribbles may reach the parched base, but that’s not enough. The most marketable areas are not fully exploited – external investment or proper central promotion of the professional and Super6 teams could help them to become more self-sufficient. The price of that would be surrendering an element of control – a price worth paying.
As employees of the governing body, the marketing department’s remit should be to promote every level of the game that is centrally controlled, not simply to milk the international cash cow which can only ever have a limited output, albeit currently a fairly lucrative one. The effort at the moment is too passive, waiting for existing customers to buy rather than selling to new ones.
Under Richard Cockerill, Edinburgh’s fortunes have improved and the team is developing an attractive style. And yet, supporter numbers remain stubbornly low. The inference is that it’s down to a lack of marketing effort. There’s also a problem at the other end of the M8, where little is being done to stem the drift of Glasgow Warriors supporters. Many are becoming disillusioned by deteriorating results and frustration that high earning personnel are not being replaced on a like-for-like basis. Boost the supporter base and the income will rise, and in turn the professional sides will need a smaller slice of the funding cake, freeing up a bit more cash for the grassroots.
The attendance at the 1872 Cup matches underlines the latent demand. The second leg attracted around 10,000 more than the combined regular crowds at Scotstoun and Murrayfield. The task is getting some of them back for next week’s game against Southern Kings. One way to do that would be a ticket offer – let’s say everyone who was at the Edinburgh v Warriors game gets to bring a friend for £5. A 10% take-up rate would add around 3,000 to the gate – a reasonable return for little effort. Then offer an incentive to get them back for the European tie against Agen. Keep entertaining them and the support becomes embedded.
Away from the finances, one of the most divisive issues is the widely-held view that SRU executives are arrogant and untrustworthy. The lack of credibility is hardly surprising when so much information is released only when the corporate machine is forced to trundle into action. The departure of Keith Russell from his post, the link up with Stade Nicois and the fraught subject of player numbers are examples of announcements made only when journalists became aware of them and forced the SRU’s hand. Are we expected to believe that the Gammell review would have happened without media pressure?
The word ‘transparency’ does not appear to have entered the Murrayfield lexicon. And yet embracing it would solve virtually all of the credibility issues, if not the fundamental problems that threaten the long-term future of rugby in Scotland. It’s little wonder that the overriding sentiment is suspicion that something is being hidden in Murrayfield’s ivory towers.
Over almost three decades as a freelance, I’ve seen the game undergo significant change, some of it enforced, some of it for the better, and some of it undoubtedly to the sport’s detriment. My optimistic hope would be that 2020 can see greater humility and honesty from those at Murrayfield. Many issues need to be addressed, but here are my three requests to Mark Dodson and his acolytes.
1. Be more open and transparent. Interact with your stakeholders. By all means trumpet your successes, but only if you are also prepared to acknowledge your failures. Spin is tiresome and simply makes your organisation look patronising and out of touch.
2. Actively market the product and invite external investment, even if it means surrendering some control. It might also provide creative solutions. While using SRU funds to plump up the retirement plan of waning international stars might be questionable, there could be merit in a high profile arrival if paid for by outside investors. Imagine the likes of Sonny Bill Williams signing for Glasgow Warriors, his wages covered by sponsors who, in return, have access to the player for corporate promotional activities (good for merchandise sales as well).
3. Get out and about. Send senior people more regularly to games – a schools match, a local derby in the Borders, maybe an early morning kick-off in the Caledonian League because Orkney have to play at 10am to catch their ferry home. Get yourself to a Super6 fixture so that you can see first hand whether it’s working. It will at least give the impression that you care. And you never know, you might enjoy it.